Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

A decade ago, historian, film buff, naturalist, and Erath County rancher Jack Matthews introduced me to the Dickcissel (Spiza americana): a bird he’d found returning to his Flying Hat Ranch after years of management practices that included minimal grazing and reseeding with native grasses.

Dickcissels require grassland habitats, but they’re rarely picky about the land’s composition. In summer, they appear in native prairies and restored grasslands, but they also nest in lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and fallow agricultural fields. Occasionally, they can be spotted along fencerows and roadsides.

Still, it wasn’t until last summer that I came across the bird. Too far away for a photo, it attracted my attention by its song. At the very top of a dead tree along the Brazoria refuge auto route, the song was musical — and loud. At the time I laughed, thinking that any female within a miles-wide radius might have heard that song. 

It wasn’t until this year that I finally found another Dickcissel: a male in breeding colors attracting attention to himself by his song. Perched atop another small dead tree — this one next to the windmill where earlier this year I’d found a Loggerhead Shrike — he was within camera range, and determined to stay put for the sake of attracting a potential mate.

When I returned a week later, he still was there, singing his heart out from the same topmost branch. After finding him perched and singing a third time, I felt a bit sorry for him, but the next time I passed by the windmill he was gone; the flowers were blooming even more profusely, but the time of singing had ended, and the voice of the Dickcissel no longer was heard in the land.

Apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the bird, the Dickcissel brought to mind Marjorie Saiser’s poem “The Nobody Bird.” It’s a fine tribute to Dickcissels, and a reminder that other ‘nobodies’ existing in the world also have their songs.

 

           I’m nobody! Who are you?
               ~ Emily Dickinson
The woman leading the bird walk
is excited because she thinks
for a minute the bird
is one she doesn’t have
on her life list,
and then she says,”Oh, it’s
just a dickcissel.”
I raise my binoculars
to bring the black throat patch
and dark eye
into the center of a circle.
I see how the dickcissel
clings to a stem
when he sings, how
he tilts his head back,
opens his throat.
The group follows
the leader to higher ground.
The wind comes up; white blossoms
of the elderberry dip and
right themselves in a rocking motion
again and again. An oriole
flies into the cottonwood,
the gray catbird into
the tossing ripening sumac.
The nobody bird
holds on:
holds on and sings.
 

Comments always are welcome.

A Sublime Landscape

Some might consider it little more than a proverbial wide spot in the road, but Sublime, Texas — population seventy-five or so — has a post office, a Lutheran church founded in 1868, and some of 2021’s earliest bluebonnets.

Traveling west of town on Alternate Highway 90 last weekend, I began to see pastures and rangeland that were filling with flowers. Before long, those familiar reds and blues spread among the oaks will be joined by an extravagance of colorful yellows, pinks, and whites.

No one around Sublime minds a pure blue field, of course.

After all, this is the highway and these are the fields that gave rise to one of the loveliest tributes possible to our state wildflower, and our “sweet bluebonnet spring.”

You don’t have to be Texan to get a tear in your eye when you hear Emmylou and Willie sing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway,” but if you are a Texan, you probably can’t help it. I know I can’t.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

Taking Refuge in Walktober

A view of Coushatta Creek

Earlier this month, I noticed several bloggers posting about an event called ‘Walktober.’ It didn’t take long to find the common link: an invitation by Robin, of Breezes at Dawn, to walk, ride, kayak, or hike into new territory or old as a way of celebrating this season of transition.

While many participants shared images of glorious autumn color, we’re still surrounded by mostly-green foliage here in southeast Texas; color changes in our trees often don’t appear until mid-to-late November. Still, autumn flowers and grasses, ripening berries, and lingering summer blooms add both color and interest to the landscape.

At the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, seasonal variety on the prairie is complemented by the presence of a lake and riparian corridors. After visits on October 4 and 18, I became determined to allow even more time for exploring all of the Refuge’s delights.

Coushatta Creek, named for the tribe which began populating Texas’s Big Thicket in the late 1700s, rises in northeastern Colorado County, runs to the southeast, and eventually joins the San Bernard River.The lower part of the creek’s course bisects the Attwater refuge, providing a rich source of food and shelter.

Beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) are especially abundant along the creek’s edge
Drummond’s wood-sorrel (Oxalis drummondii), familiar in springtime, lingers on
A splash of yellow partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) shines against the creek waters A beetle, a spider, a thrip, and a slug share a rosy palafox bloom (Palafoxia rosea)

After crossing Coushatta creek on a small bridge, a trail leads to Horseshoe Lake. A magnet for many of the more than 150 species of birds sighted on the refuge, the lake fills with waterlilies and lotuses in season.

White American waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)

A single Maryland Meadow Beauty bloomed on a hillside below the lake. Introduced to the flower on the Nash Prairie, I’ve often found it in east Texas, as well.

Maryland meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana)

The sandy trail leading to the bird blind was filled with sun-loving plants, including the small but lovely bracted fanpetals, and another flower that’s common here both in spring and in fall: crow poison.

Bracted fanpetals (Sida ciliaris)
Crow poison (Nothoscordum bivalve)

Brandon Melton, one of the biologists on staff at the refuge, identified this camphorweed for me. Although I didn’t hike to the other side of the lake, I’m certain this plant figured prominently in the lovely yellow glow I shared in a previous post.

Camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris)

Insects were everywhere, of course. Some were familiar, but this small moth — a little worse for wear but still active — was a fine discovery. The adult reportedly flies from September to December, favoring many fall-blooming Texas species like Eupatorium spp.

White-tipped black (Melanchroia chephise)

Two common mistflowers were present on refuge land: one in a meadow near the lake, and one at the edge of woodland shade. After examining their leaves and stems, I’m more confident in my ability to identify the species in the future.

Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium dissectum)
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

Even absent the sight of an Attwater Prairie Chicken, the prairie itself is remarkably varied and beautiful.

The sight of Baccharis neglecta gracefully bending before the wind makes one of its common names, ‘false willow,’ understandable. Other names, referencing Roosevelt, the Depression, and poverty, recall attempts to recover from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl by planting Baccharis species to revegetate drought-damaged soils.

Poverty weed, or Roosevelt weed (Baccharis neglecta)

Already fading but still lovely, heartsepal buckwheat spread across the land — a new addition to my growing list of favorite white flowers.

Heartsepal buckwheat (Eriogonum multiflorum)

Here and there, the buckwheat was accompanied by a few remaining stems of Lindheimer’s beeblossom, or gaura. Gaura is derived from the Greek gauros, or ‘superb’ — a perfect descriptor for these flowers. The specific epithet honors Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), Texas botanist extraordinaire.

Lindheimer’s beeblossom, or gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)

If this companion of the pretty white calf I photographed nearby was trying to hide, he needed to find something more substantial than a stand of airy bladderpod.

Bladderpod (Sesbania vesicaria)

While most of the leaves had dropped and the seedpods were drying, recent rains had encouraged new growth, including the emergence of this pretty bladderpod flower.

An emerging late bladderpod bloom

Coincidentally, I’d come across this somehow familiar plant on the west end of Galveston Island a week earlier. Finally, I found the common name: bushy goldentop. The name’s certainly appropriate, since the flowers are as golden as any goldenrod.

Bushy goldentop (Euthamia leptocephala)

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the prairie was the widespread presence of Gulf Muhly, a pretty native grass I’d seen only in landscape plantings. It complemented both the heartsepal buckwheat and a variety of yellow flowers beautifully.

Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
A closer view of the prettiest grass in the world

Of course sunflowers were everywhere. I was intrigued to find the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, less common than swamp sunflowers or the so-called tickseed sunflower, which belongs in an entirely different genus.

Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Tickseed Sunflower (Bidens aristosa)

But the final amazement of the day was this single white prickly poppy. One of my favorite flowers, it had set up shop in the midst of buckwheat and bladderpod only feet from the end of the auto route. If it weren’t entirely too fanciful, I might have imagined Nature saying, “Here’s one last flower, just for you.”

White prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora)

 

Comments always are welcome.